Discover more from Heavy Crown Press
Fat Man and Little Boy (1989)
The road to hell is paved in good intentions
I finally sat down to watch FAT MAN AND LITTLE BOY (1989) which was a movie that has been on my mind ever since that epically explosive “Barbenheimer” opening weekend. FAT MAN AND LITTLE BOY was a movie I watched as a kid with someone who passed away earlier this year; he was Paul Newman’s biggest fan and I had a little-girly crush on John Cusack. I saw it again in my 11th grade US History class at Burbank High School. Mr. Thompson rolled out a television and VCR on a cart and fast-forwarded through a lot of the…less instructionally relevant parts, i.e. the love scene between Oppenheimer and Jean Tatlock!
Prior to rewatching it this week, I recalled the jerk played by Paul Newman (General Groves) and a single scene in which John Cusack (fictional Michael Merriman) and one of the other scientists (“Oppie’s boys”) discuss the squeezing of an orange. “It’s compression,” they triumphantly declared! It’s all about compression and implosion! “Yeah, but explosions go out,” Cusack said in his composite role of Michael Merriman.1 “Yeah, but we’ll make one that goes in,” his colleague countered.
Rewatching it, I kept noticing the way that the story of the first atomic bombs correlates with the stories of the people who were involved in the Manhattan Project. Paul Newman’s character, General Groves, was in charge of ensuring the top secrecy of the project. He had to compress all knowledge of it within the confines of the need-to-know circle at the Los Alamos Laboratory in the New Mexico desert. Doing so meant keeping tabs on what everyone was doing, all the time. Phones were tapped, mail was opened. Oppie and “Oppie’s boys” agreed to all of this in a united and patriotic sense that these measures were necessary for the defeat of the Axis Powers. It’s all about compression! Compress these brilliant minds into a laboratory, isolate them and keep them focused on the task at hand—let science be the savior of mankind. We know, of course, there is a thin line between savior and destroyer. That, of course, is the central message behind both Oppenheimer (2023)—“Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds”2—and its 1989 predecessor. After all, it’s the same story, simply told in a different way.
Christopher Nolan’s title alone sets the maker at the heart of the story. “I am become death,” the title character says. He’s hero and villain, ender of wars and destroyer of life. Both movies are about Robert Oppenheimer—his brilliance, his hubris, his wrestle with his conscience, his twisted morality. Any movie about the Manhattan Project, whether it emphasizes more the bombs or the maker, is bound to be received with mixed feelings by the public. Creating the atomic bomb and dropping two on Japan are sins with repercussions that we still have to live with. Learned history reminds us that it was done to save the world, and yet, what poison! Antidote and poison, cure and disease! We the inheritors feel badly enough. Imagine what they felt in dropping the bombs! Would we have acted differently? Would we have known better? If the men on the front lines were our contemporaries instead of our ancestors, how would we have felt? Anyone able to answer these questions easily is not thinking very deeply.
I’ve read a lot about the morality (or amorality) of Nolan’s Oppenheimer in opinion pieces. I’m here to write about what I noticed in Fat Man and Little Boy. I fully intend to see Oppenheimer at some point, but here is what I can articulate about Fat Man and Little Boy: It is a story of two men rather than one. These men are apparently stark opposites as the story opens. As it progresses, the similarities grow in prominence. There’s an interesting dialogue between Newman and Dwight Schultz (Oppenheimer) as the latter wrestles with his conscience in the hours before “Trinity”—code name for the test of the “gadget.”3 Oppenheimer asks the general (or the ether, in the general’s hearing) what he has become. The general replies, something to the effect that Oppenheimer just stopped fighting his nature. We hear a lot from Oppenheimer in the movie about his hope that he can “control” the use of the bombs, and there’s a beautifully-acted, sad scene between Schultz and Bonnie Bedelia, who plays Kitty, his wife. She rebukes his obsession with control and power. She implores, “What about love?”
“I hate and I love,” he said to John Cusack’s character, in fact quoting the Roman poet Catullus. “Why I do this, perhaps you ask. I know not, but I feel both and I am in agony.”4 Poetry plays a significant part in Oppenheimer’s story. Before he goes to Berkeley to break off with Jean Tatlock, we see him holding a copy of John Donne’s selected works, given to him and signed by Jean. Donne’s poetry inspired the name of the “Trinity” testing site.5 Normally, we associate the Trinity with holiness—the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Here we have the Gadget, the Fat Man, and the Little Boy—devices of compressed, unstable isotopes, built to burn up life.
The real Oppenheimer was later asked by the real General Groves why he named the site “Trinity.” Oppenheimer replied: “Why I chose the name is not clear, but I know what thoughts were in my mind. There is a poem of John Donne written just before his death, which I know and love.”6 He recited the above quote from “Hymn to God, My God, in My Sickness,” but he also mentioned “Batter my heart, three person’d God”7 as perhaps inspiring the name of Trinity.8
The Gadget’s explosion left a crater with scattered bits of radioactive minerals nicknamed Trinitite. Some Trinitite remains at the site, some are stored at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History.9 The ruptured plutonium atoms transformed into a bunch of different elements, one of which is an isotope with a half-life of 24,100 years.10 Although Trinitite used to be extremely dangerous to touch because of its radioactivity, today it’s harmless, “unless you eat it.”11 The idea of Trinitite sticking to the site feels to me like “Trinity” and Oppenheimer leaving a permanent mark. That’s where it began—the Atomic Age. That’s where we live still. It is the energy that destroys, yet cannot be destroyed.
I leave you with a clip from a scene I found especially….well, not prescient or prophetic, since these are movie lines delivered in 1989. Still, I can’t help wondering, what if they knew in 1945 that as of January 2023, the number of nuclear warheads in the world would exceed 12,000?12 This is a scene between the normally jovial Dr. Richard Schoenfield and Oppenheimer as they argue in the rain about whether “Trinity” ought to go forward after the horrible accident that befell Merriman. I don’t think Schoenfield, played by John C. McGinley, is a real character. Laura Dern is another one who plays a fictional role—a nurse who falls in love with Cusack’s (quasi-fictional) character, Merriman. Dern and McGinley make up some of the last images in the movie—releasing lab animals into the wild as a voice over from John Cusack delivers lines from a letter from Merriman to Dern’s character: “All I do know is, that if we are free to choose, I hope to God we choose life over death—not because I believe the implacable universe cares a damn, but because, as I look at you, my darling, I realize how glorious, how magical life can be.” Then the movie cuts to a triumphant, relieved, celebratory Oppenheimer—American hero and villain, and then we see General Groves looking proudly upon him—his nemesis, his mentor. Dwight Schultz is smiling, but not from the eyes. The eyes are haunted, and exhausted too. He and Paul Newman look at each other. Newman pumps his fist encouragingly.
Three still images close the movie:
Oppenheimer & Groves (in fact, the actors, Schultz & Newman) standing in the shadow of a sunset, heads leaning toward each other, as if in conversation
The two men gazing out at the sunset, full-body, from behind
The Earth, from space
From Google: “The character of Michael Merriman (John Cusack) is a fictional composite of several people and is put into the film to provide a moral compass as the "common man". The scene in which Merriman is exposed to a fatal dose of radiation (a lab accident) is based on something that really happened to Louis Slotin. You can read about it here: https://www.aps.org/publications/apsnews/201405/physicshistory.cfm.
Original Latin: “Odi et amo. quare id faciam fortasse requiris nescio, sed fieri sentio et excrucior.” (I hate and I love. Why do I do this, perhaps you ask, but I feel it and I am tortured.)
see note 6
see note 6
see note 6